Second Book Syndrome: A Brilliant piece from Guest Blogger Rebecca James

by |May 31, 2013

Bestselling author Rebecca James has bared her soul in this exquisite and brutally honest piece about the battle of the writer against the blank page.

Sweet Damage is my second book and second books are so notoriously difficult to write that this very difficulty has a condition named after it: Second Book Syndrome.

I initially started another second book. It was called Cooper Bartholomew is Dead.  I won’t go into the details but for various reasons I stopped writing Cooper after a year of work and started on Sweet Damage.

The point of telling you this is so you understand that by the time I started writing Sweet Damage I had a much worse condition than plain old Second Book Syndrome – I had second Second Book Syndrome.

In February 2011 – by which time the deadline for my second book had well and truly passed – I wrote a detailed synopsis for Sweet Damage. Once my agent and my publishers had read and approved it, I made a crazy promise. I said I’d have it ready in 2 months.

It didn’t quite work out that way. It actually took a good two years and I learnt a few things along the way.

The first is that I shouldn’t bother writing an outline because I don’t follow them. The story and characters in Sweet Damage don’t resemble the story and characters I described in the synopsis. The whole exercise was a waste of time.

The second thing I learned is that I simply cannot write a book in two months and I will never suggest this again.

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I also learned – and you’d think I would have known this already – is that writing is hard.

There’s a well know aphorism (I think Confucious may have coined it) which goes something like ‘make a living doing something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’

Before I had a publishing deal I thought nothing could be truer, and being paid to write novels was definitely how I wanted to make a living, the job I wanted more than any other, the beloved something that would mean I never had to work a day in my life.

I was lucky, my dream came true. I got the elusive publishing deal. In fact, within a few short weeks I went from being just another desperate wannabe author to being the author of the hottest book at the Frankfurt Book Fair and before I had time to actually comprehend what was happening I had over fifty publishing deals.  I was even compared to J.K. Rowling (just come and look at my bathroom and you’ll know that’s not an apt comparison). It’s a rare thing to be able to make a living from writing novels in Australia, and suddenly (for a few years at least) I was one of the privileged few. Real life had surpassed all my dreams and expectations. I’d basically won the publishing Lotto, and nobody was more surprised than me.

The thing is that once my dream came true, the reality turned out to be a little less wonderful than I’d imagined. Once I was living my dream life, doing the job I loved more than any other, I started to wonder think about what Confucious had said. (That’s the thing about aphorisms and pithy quotes, I guess, they’re perfect until they’re not.) I found myself in the position of wanting to find a more accurate way to describe the way I felt, a new aphorism, if you like. Thanks to the internet and google (every writer’s best friend) I found it. This particular quote (my current favourite) is slightly less optimistic than the earlier one.  It goes ‘do something you love for a living and you’ll probably start to love it a little less.’

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And at the risk of sounding like a whinger, I have to admit that for a while there, in the middle of writing this book, this second phrase felt a lot truer to me than the first one did.

During the two years that it took to write Sweet Damage I frequently felt quite frantic and unhappy. I didn’t think I would ever finish. I wondered if I was the slowest writer in the world and I worried constantly that I was letting everyone down. With every frighteningly comprehensive editorial letter I received I had a destructive and powerful urge to toss my computer out the window. I cried. A lot. What the hell was wrong with me? I’d been given this great opportunity, this fantastic two book deal, a dream come true for most writers – and I couldn’t deliver. I was a fraud. A one-book wonder. A failure.

In hindsight I’m still not exactly sure what it was that made me take so long – The famous Second Book Syndrome? Writerly self-consciousness? Performance anxiety? I’ll probably never know. What I do know is that for a while there everything just felt too hard. Novel writing was impossible and stupid. The whole writing-stories-for-a-living gig was a beautiful but insane delusion.

Fortunately, I was wrong. It wasn’t a delusion. Eventually, and despite all my self doubts and struggles and stops and starts, I did manage to finish my second book. And here we are.

And what I’m really grateful for is that nobody else ever suggested that any of the stuff I was worrying about was true. Nobody ever suggested that I was letting them down. Nobody ever suggested that I was failing. Nobody even suggested that I was taking too long. Despite the defeatist and miserable thoughts that were going through my head my publishers, editors and my agent were all unfailingly supportive and encouraging, and most of all patient. And I’m truly thankful for that. I feel blessed and privileged to have been given the space and the time to get this book done, and to get it right.

I’m not sure what pithy saying sums up the feeling I have right now, but what I can tell you is that it’s a surreal and fantastic moment when you first hold your beautifully covered and professionally typeset book in your hands.It’s another fantastic moment you see it on the shelves. It’s the world’s best moment when you receive an email from a reader telling you your book kept them up at night, or made them cry.

Perhaps this quote by American poet Dorothy Parker suits me best right now.

‘I hate writing, I love having written.’

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

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  • May 31, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Awesome post Rebecca 🙂 It’s nice for the rest of us unpublished to hear the struggles, so we know it’s not just in our heads either!

  • June 1, 2013 at 1:26 am

    Oh, how I relate. i’ve started two or three second books. The working title of the one I’m working on now is “This is The One I’ll Finish.”

  • June 3, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Ah Rebecca, I know exactly what you mean. Mind you, I found the third and the fourth books almost as difficult. And the fifth is driving me to distraction. 🙂 I think these sorts of terrors crop up with each book, because each book is something different, and there’s always that fear – what if I haven’t got another one in me? Great publishers and great agents make a difference at times like these!

  • June 6, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Oh my goodness Rebecca, you’ve written this post just for me!

    I was so excited to finish my first novel that I dove in and started writing the second one straight away.

    I found I couldn’t do it. The characters were different, the period was different.

    After getting a contract on Moostone Obsession last month, I was over the moon and redoubled my efforts on my second WIP but again, where I could write 2000 words a day, on Moonstone, I find that I work hard to get 2000 done a week.

    I wonder whether the first book is a fluke.

    Fortunately having great crit partners has grounded me and reading this article from yourself Rebecca has renewed my confidence mightily.

    All the very best and wishing you many many sales.


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